email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
10th Grade202432 Stories4th of July99 DaysA Change in AltitudeA Demon in My ViewA Dream of WolvesA Falling KnifeA Finely Tuned Apathy MachineA Heart of StoneA Life Lived RidiculouslyA Multitude of SinsA Parting GiftA Question of BloodA Quiet PlaceA Red Heart of MemoriesA River SutraA Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA Slight Trick of the MindA Stir of BonesA Thousand Miles from NowhereA Voyage Long and StrangeA Wedding in December About a BoyAbraham LincolnAcross the River and Into the TreesActs of GodAfrican PsychoAfter DarkAfter YouAfter You'd GoneAfterwardsAgenda for MurderAliens in the Prime of Their LivesAll Alone in the UniverseAll Families Are PsychoticAll in the MindAll the Way HomeAltered LandAlternatives to SexAmanda's WeddingAmelia RulesAmericaAmerica AmericaAmnesiaAmong the DepartedAn Object of BeautyAngelsAngry Youth Comix #2AnimosityAnne SextonAre You Experienced?Aristotle and Poetic JusticeAristotle DetectiveArlington ParkArtemis FowlAs Hot as It Was You Ought to Thank MeAsking For MurderAtonementAway Laughing on a Fast CamelBabylon and Other StoriesBad BoyBad SeedBag Of BonesBalancing ActsBarbara the Slut and Other PeopleBeach RoadBeat the ReaperBeautiful GirlsBed of RosesBefore I Go to SleepBefore the FrostBeg the QuestionBeginner's GreekBellyBeneath the SkinBenedictionBest New American VoicesBig BrotherBilly and GirlBiteBlack & WhiteBlack HelicoptersBlack Market TruthBlameBlanketsBleed for MeBlind SightBlonde FaithBlood, Salt, WaterBlueprints for Building Better GirlsBody SurfingBoneMan's DaughtersBoneyardBoneyardBoomsdayBorder CrossingBoth Ways Is the Only Way I Want ItBoysBracketBrain TrustBrava, ValentineBreaking Out of BedlamBreathing UnderwaterBrick LaneBridge of SighsBridget JonesBridget Jones's DiaryBrief Interviews with Hideous MenBruisesBrŁselBullyBurn, Bitchy, BurnButterflyBy BloodBy The Sea ShoreCalled to KillCanadaCanvasCaricatureCase HistoriesCellCemetery DanceChange of HeartChangesChasing the DimeChild 44Cinema PanopticumCinnamon KissCircle NineCity of the LostClay's WayClose toYouClose Your EyesCloud 9 AffairCoincidenceCold CaseCold HitCold in HandCollected StoriesCome Up and See Me SometimeComfort and JoyCompulsionConfessions of a ShopaholicConfessions of an Ex-GirlfriendConsider LoveCouch FictionCrispinCross CountryCruddyCrumpleCutCypherDaddy's GirlsDakotaDamageDancing After HoursDanger in High PlacesDanger! Cross CurrentsDante's PoisonDante's WoodDarkest FearDating Without NovocaineDead BoysDead Canaries Don't SingDead EndDead EvenDeadly AdviceDeadly ButterflyDeadly GambleDeaf SentenceDear American AirlinesDear Zoe,Death of a Department ChairDeath of an AddictDeath with InterruptionsDeath Without TenureDeceitDecemberDeceptionDefending JacobDeliverance From EvilDemonologyDepraved HeartDisobedienceDisturbing GroundDivine JusticeDivisaderoDixie RoadDr. Jekyll & Mr. HydeDriftlessDuplicityEcstasyEmerald City BluesEmpire FallsEmpress of the WorldEnd over EndEven DeadlierEven Dogs in the WildEvenings at FiveEvery Visible ThingEye ContactFaking ItFalling ManFamily HistoryFascinationFat Angie Fear of the DarkFeeling Sorry for CeliaFellsideFeminist Philosophy And Science FictionFever 1793Field of BloodFinal JeopardyFlashpointFlorid StatesForgive the MoonFortunate SonFortune's RocksFour Blind MiceFour CornersFred the ClownFrom Girls to GrrlzGallatin CanyonGaudi AfternoonGenerosityGeorgia Under WaterGhost at the WindowGiftedGiganticGirl in TranslationGirl Walking BackwardsGirls Closed InGirls Like UsGod HeadGod Is DeadGod Is Not OneGods and BeastsGoldengroveGone GirlGood GriefGrace, Tamar and Laszlo the BeautifulGuises of DesireHalf In Love With DeathHappiness Sold SeparatelyHappy FamilyHappy Mutant Baby PillsHappy Now?HarleyHarry Potter and the Sorcererís StoneHeartbeatHeftHell's IslandHey, Wait...High HeatHolidays On IceHope in a JarHot MilkHotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel WorldHotels of North AmericaHouse of JavaHow a Gunman Says GoodbyeHow People ChangeHow to Be GoodHow to Set a Fire and WhyHug MeI Can See YouI Don't Know How She Does ItI'd Know You AnywhereIf I Fall, If I DieIf You StayImagine Me GoneImposter for HireIn ZanesvilleInfinite JestIngloriousInnocentInnocent WorldInnocentsInspired SleepInvisibleIronshoreIs This What Other Women Feel Too?It Takes OneIt's Love We Don't UnderstandIt's Not Me, It's YouJacob Have I LovedJimmy CorriganJohn Dies at the EndJournal d'une femme adultŤreJust LifeKhalifahKick the Animal OutKicking the SkyKim: Empty InsideKisscutKissing DoorknobsKissing in AmericaKnockout MouseLambLast Chance SaloonLast NightLaura Numeroff's 10-Step Guide to Living with Your MonsterLawnboyLayoverLeft NeglectedLeisureLeo the Lightning BugLeslie's JournalLet Me Be Frank With YouLies My Girlfriend Told MeLife After LifeLife ClassLife Is a Strange PlaceLife of PiLike the Red PandaLike You'd Understand, AnywayLikely to DieLisa, Bright and DarkLisey's StoryListen to the SilenceLithium for MedeaLittle Black LiesLittle ChildrenLittle LitLittle ScarletLiíl SantaLonerLord of the FliesLosing JuliaLostLost GirlLost in the ForestLost Memory of SkinLove and Shame and LoveLove in the AsylumLove Songs for the Shy and CynicalLovely Green EyesLowboyLucy Sullivan Is Getting MarriedMagnificenceMaking ScenesMaliceMan and BoyMan in the WoodsManstealing for Fat GirlsMary, MaryMercy StreetMerry Christmas, Alex CrossMiddlesexMischlingMisfortuneMissing PresumedMoby DickMomma and the Meaning of LifeMonsterMonths and SeasonsMr. CommitmentMrs. DallowayMunich AirportMurder BookMurder in ByzantiumMurder in the InnMusic for TorchingMy AbandonmentMy Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me UpMy Life with CorpsesMy Name Is RedMy Sister's KeeperMystery Time StoriesNasty, Short and BrutalNecessary NoiseNelson Mandela's Favorite African FolktalesNemesisNeuroticaNever Fade AwayNever Let Me GoNew Australian StoriesNight FilmNina: AdolescenceNo One Can Pronounce My NameNo Place to HideNone of the AboveNorth of BeautifulNothing RightNovel About My WifeObjects of My AffectionObservatory MansionsOdd HoursOddsOld SchoolOn Chesil BeachOn the CouchOnce You Go BackOne Flew Over The Cuckoo's NestOne Good TurnOne More WednesdayOne Pill Makes You SmallerOptic Nerve #11Our Souls at NightOver Tumbled GravesPaint It BlackPanicParadiseParadise LodgeParanoiaParty GirlPeculiaPerfect LivesPharmakonPhobicPianoPictures of YouPilgrim at Tinker CreekPlaying with FirePlea of InsanityPopCoPoppy ShakespearePower SplitPreaching to the CorpsePrepPresumed InnocentProzac HighwayPumping Up NapoleonPureRachel's HolidayRacing the DevilRadiant CoolRaptors Red SnowRelentlessRemembrance of Things Past, Vol 1: CombrayRescueReturn to IsisReunion at Red Paint BayRevolting YouthRevolutionary RoadRight LivelihoodsRippleRoomRun DownRun for Your LifeSamaritanSand DollarSaturdaySaturday's ChildSay You Are My SisterSay You're One of ThemSay You're SorrySaying It Out LoudSchopenhauer's TelescopeSeason to TasteSecond LifeSee How SmallSeed of the Dogwood TreeSerious GirlsSexyShades of BlueShadow BabyShamelessShatteredShooterShort PeopleShutter IslandShy GirlSigned, Mata HariSilencedSilent CruiseSince You AskSister CrazySister MischiefSisterlandSkin DeepSleeping BeautySleepwalkSlip of the KnifeSmackSmall Avalanches and Other StoriesSmutSnowSo Brave, Young and HandsomeSome Thing BlackSometimes It's New YorkSong for EloiseSongs for the MissingSongs Without WordsSounds from the Bell JarSourlandSpeakSpeaking With the AngelSpeed ShrinkingSquirrel Seeks ChipmunkSshhhh!Stealing TimeSteel BreezeStill AliceStill MissingStir-FryStoner & SpazStop PretendingStraight ManStrange FleshStrange Stories for Strange Kids Summer BlondeSunstrokeSupreme CourtshipSwimmerSwimming Sweet ArrowSwimming to ElbaSwimming with StrangersSworn to SilenceSycamoreSylvia PlathTaking FlightTales of PsychotherapyTalking to AddisonTeaseTell the Truth, Shame the DevilTestimonyThat Old Cape MagicThe DrifterThe 101 Best Graphic NovelsThe 7 Deadly Sins SamplerThe Abortionist's DaughterThe Abstinence TeacherThe AccidentalThe AdultsThe AlienistThe Almost MoonThe Arctic IncidentThe ArrangementThe Artist of DisappearanceThe Austere AcademyThe Average American MarriageThe AwakeningThe Babes in the WoodThe Bad BeginningThe Beach HouseThe Beast of CretaceaThe Beat Goes OnThe Bell JarThe Best AwfulThe Big GirlsThe Big KissThe Big LoveThe Bird HouseThe Bird WomanThe Birthday RiotsThe Bitch PosseThe Blue Moon Erotic Reader IIIThe Blue NotebookThe Boat RockerThe Book of JamaicaThe Book of JoeThe Book of LeedsThe Book of LiesThe Book of LiverpoolThe Book of the DeadThe BramblesThe Brass VerdictThe Brimstone JournalsThe Burden of ProofThe Cake HouseThe CallingThe Castle in the ForestThe ChemistThe Children ActThe Children of MenThe Christmas TrainThe Christmas WeddingThe ClosersThe Consciousness PlagueThe Conspiracy ClubThe CorrectionsThe CorrectionsThe Covery and ThenThe Cuckoo's CallingThe CureThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Dark HouseThe Dark RoomThe Darkest Evening of the YearThe Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Dead Fathers ClubThe Dead Fish MuseumThe Dead HourThe Dead of SummerThe Death of Bunny MunroThe Delight of Being OrdinaryThe DepositionThe Devotion of Suspect XThe Diary of a Teenage GirlThe Disobedience Of The Daughter Of The SunThe Diviner's TaleThe DivinersThe DollmakerThe Double BindThe Dream BearerThe Dressmaker of Khair KhanaThe Dubious Salvation of Jack V.The Dulcimer Boy The Dynamite RoomThe EcstaticThe Education of Mrs. BemisThe Elementary ParticlesThe End Of AliceThe End of EverythingThe End of Mr. YThe Erotic EdgeThe Eternity CubeThe Extinction of DesireThe Field of the DogsThe Fig EaterThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry AugustThe Fortunate OnesThe Gingerbread GirlThe Girl in 6EThe Girl in the GardenThe Girl on Mill StreetThe Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's NestThe Girl Who Loved Tom GordonThe Girl Who Played with FireThe Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl Without a NameThe GirlsThe Good PsychologistThe Great Books Foundation Short Story OmnibusThe Green ParrotThe Grief of OthersThe Grim GrottoThe Guise of AnotherThe Gum ThiefThe Guy Not TakenThe Hearts of MenThe Heretic's DaughterThe HoursThe Housekeeper and the ProfessorThe Ice QueenThe Ice TwinsThe InseparablesThe InterestingsThe IntimatesThe Keeper of Lost CausesThe Keeper of Lost ThingsThe Kindness of StrangersThe Kings of LondonThe Language of SecretsThe Last ChildThe Last MileThe Last PhysicianThe Last PrecinctThe Lay of the LandThe Lincoln LawyerThe Little FriendThe Lost MotherThe Love HexagonThe Lovely BonesThe Lover's DictionaryThe Madonnas of Echo ParkThe Madwoman in the AtticThe Man from BeijingThe Man in My BasementThe Man of My DreamsThe Map of True PlacesThe Marriage PlotThe Master BedroomThe Memory Book The Memory Keeper's DaughterThe Mercy RoomThe Mermaids SingingThe Meursault InvestigationThe Ministry of Special CasesThe MiracleThe Miserable MillThe Missing ProfessorThe Most Dangerous ThingThe MuralistThe Museum of InnocenceThe NarrowsThe New YorkersThe NewleywedsThe Night ListenerThe NixThe Notebook of Lost ThingsThe Obvious ChildThe One With the NewsThe Other Side of the StoryThe Outlaw AlbumThe Particular Sadness of Lemon CakeThe PastThe People of the VeilThe Philosopher's LoverThe Philosophical PractitionerThe Possession of Mr. CaveThe Pregnant WidowThe Promise of a LieThe Promised LandThe PyramidThe ReaderThe Red HouseThe Red RoomThe Red ThreadThe ReporterThe Reptile RoomThe Resurrection StoneThe ReturnThe Right MistakeThe RoadThe Rule of FourThe Same Stuff as StarsThe Savage GirlThe ScarecrowThe Schopenhauer CureThe Second GirlThe SecretThe Secret Life of BeesThe Secret of Lost ThingsThe Secret ScriptureThe Secret SpeechThe Secret Wisdom of the EarthThe Shock of the FallThe Shutter of SnowThe Silence RoomThe SisterThe Sisterhood of the Traveling PantsThe Sky ChangesThe SnowmanThe SongwriterThe Sorrows of an AmericanThe Sound of Broken GlassThe Speed AbaterThe Speed of DarkThe Spinoza ProblemThe Stethoscope CureThe Stone GodsThe Story HourThe Story of Beautiful GirlThe Sudden Arrival of ViolenceThe Sweet Relief of Missing ChildrenThe Sweetness at the Bottom of the PieThe SyndromeThe Tenth CircleThe Tenth JusticeThe Third AngelThe Time Traveler's WifeThe Torn SkirtThe TouristThe Trick Is to Keep BreathingThe Trouble with Goats and SheepThe Troubled ManThe Undertaker's WifeThe Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraThe Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia MossThe UnnamedThe UnquietThe Unseen WorldThe Usual MistakesThe Vanishing Act of Esme LennoxThe VegetarianThe Virgin BlueThe Virgin CureThe Water ChildrenThe WaveThe Weed That Strings the Hangman's BagThe Whole TruthThe Wide WindowThe Wild Assís SkinThe Woman and the ApeThe Woman UpstairsThe Wrong Side of GoodbyeThe Year of the FloodThe Year That FollowsTherapyThere Are No EldersThings You Should KnowThinks...Third Class SuperheroThirty NothingThis Beautiful LifeThis Body of DeathThose GirlsThose Who Wish Me DeadThumbsuckerTimothy Tunny Swallowed a BunnyTina's MouthTiny DeathsTisToby's RoomTony & SusanToo Much HappinessTooth and NailTouchTouching Spirit BearTouchy SubjectsTrailer GirlTransparencyTraumaTreacherous LoveTrespassTriburbiaTucker PeakTuringTwentieth Century EightballTwinmakerTwo Can PlayTwo Little Girls in BlueUnaccustomed EarthUnder the DamUnder the HarrowUnder the InfluenceUnfitUnholy StoriesUniversal HarvesterUnkemptUnlessUp in FlamesUp in the AirUpstateValenciaVenus DriveVeronika Decides to DieVery ValentineViolet & ClaireVisits from The Drowned GirlVoid MoonWaiting for SunriseWakeWastelandWatching the DarkWe Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWelding with ChildrenWell-Remembered DaysWemberly WorriedWhat Became of UsWhat It Means to Love YouWhat the Birds SeeWhat Waiting Really MeansWhat Was She Thinking? Notes on a ScandalWhat We Don't Know About ChildrenWhat's So Terrible About Swallowing an Apple Seed?When We Were AnimalsWhen We Were OrphansWhere We LivedWhite HotWhy Did I EverWidowWild AwakeWild ChildWill@epicqwest.comWillful CreaturesWitWithout TessWolf in White VanWomen's Murder Club Box SetYou or Someone Like YouYou Should Have KnownYou Will Know MeYour Body is ChangingYour Heart Belongs to MeZapZap
Lionel Shriver has already established herself as a novelist with a strong interest in the psychology of dysfunctional families and difficult characters, most notably with her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, the story of a mother reflecting on the life of her son whose hatefulness finally leads him to performing a mass school killing. In Big Brother, Shriver takes another social issue, obesity. Pandora is in her early forties, and she has married Fletcher, a divorced man with two teenage children. They have a peaceful and successful suburban life in Iowa. She used to run her own catering company, but now she is heading a much more profitable business, which sells hand-made talking dolls based on real people. This luxury item is bringing in lots of money, which is a good thing, because Fletcher, who creates his own furniture, sells hardly anything. So because of her financial power, she has the upper hand in their marriage. Yet the two of them get on well, supporting each other and mostly enjoying each other's company. There is some slight tension in the family due to Fletcher's obsessive enthusiasm for fitness and healthy food. He goes on long bike rides and will not eat any dairy-based products, which keeps him trim and strong, but exasperates the rest of the family.
These slight strains are made much worse when Pandora's older brother Edison comes for an extended visit. Edison is a jazz pianist who lives in New York City; he left home when he was 17 for the city, and he had been good looking and rebellious. Unfortunately, life has not been kind to Edison. His jazz career has not gone well, and he is now homeless. Although Fletcher and Edison do not get on well, Pandora wants to help her brother, so she buys him a flight to Iowa and meets him at the airport. She is shocked when she sees Edison, because he has changed dramatically. At normal weight the last time she saw him a few years ago, he has now become extremely obese.
Although musically talented, Edison is not an easy person to be around. He drones on about music when no one else is interested. He shows little interest in other people's lives. Now he eats huge amounts of food, and empties the fridge on a regular basis. He also insists on making huge meals for the family, which Fletcher refuses to even sample. Pandora finds herself torn between her brother and her husband, and as the stay goes on, Fletcher's patience decreases to the extent that he is ready to give her an ultimatum. She has to choose between these two men; she can either choose to help her brother end his overeating or she can keep her marriage.
So this is a novel that portrays Edison's problem with weight as a bad way of dealing with his problems. Although she brings in plenty of information about how difficult it is for overweight people to get their weight back down, she does not show Edison as a victim or as someone with an eating addiction. Ultimately it would take both determination and a great deal of support from others to get back to a healthy weight, and there are so many emotions wrapped in the process that it would be virtually impossible to succeed.
Shriver fills out the story with a rather tiresome story about the past that Pandora and Edison share as children of a father who was one of the main characters in a long running TV sitcom, and she shows their unhappy past. We also get lots of details about Fletcher's teenage children, and Pandora's business. All of this makes the novel more three dimensional, although it is largely dispensable, because the central issue of obesity dominates the language and the story. The question hanging over the whole novel is whether it is possible to really help someone who is committed to eating themselves to death. Ultimately, the novel is bleak in its outlook.
While the novel has won praise from many critics, it has made enemies of some who were former fans of Shriver's work. Many readers take the book to be judgmental about obese people and furthermore, they react badly to a literary device Shriver uses, reminiscent of Ian McEwan's Atonement. As a meditation on our responsibility to help others, and on obesity, it is a provocative work, and there are points when it feels like Shriver is setting out ideas that are controversial just for the sake of it. It isn't surprising that some readers feel manipulated, although it is a strategy that has worked well for Jodi Picoult.
So it is especially interesting to learn that this novel has a strong autobiographical element. Shriver herself had an elder brother who was morbidly obese, who died of related causes. An article in the UK Observer also reveals that Shriver herself is like Fletcher, with a rigorous health regime including biking, running and other exercises. So the novel contains many issues that she personally has encountered. Knowing this may alter readers' experience of the work. There is no denying it is a book that attempts to understand weight issues in ways that avoid many of the usual clichés, and despite its pessimism, it stands out for tackling difficult problems.
The performance of the unabridged audiobook by Alice Rosengard is fine, making Pandora a sympathetic and thoughtful character.
© 2013 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York